A whole new level for green and ethical building design

Sustainability & the Environment

Ahead of his presentation at Construction Week next week, Area’s director of workplace concepts Lee Day discusses green and ethical building design:

Next week is UK Construction Week and, as is always the case, one of the most discussed topics both on the exhibition floor and as part of the seminar programme will be the environmental aspects of building design. This has been a major concern for some time, but the subject has evolved in recent years in a number of important new ways. Where once it was primarily about the performance of specific buildings, it is now increasingly a way to address broader concerns about office design, individual wellbeing and the supply chain.

The bottom line used to be primarily that commercial property was a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and so this should be the primary objective of environmentally conscious building design. The British Property Federation estimates that commercial property contributes about 14 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions. It is this that draws the eye of legislators to the issue and they have played an important role in the move to greener buildings.

Yet firms already have a number of incentives to address the issue, and not all of them are related to cutting energy bills and reducing carbon emissions. That is why we see so many occupiers exceed what is expected of them by legislation and also why this is becoming more and more of a business-critical issue in a number of key areas.

As we highlighted in a comment piece earlier this year, the relevant building standards are evolving rapidly to keep pace with both a growing body of evidence about the wider benefits of green building design as well as growing demand from developers, builders and occupiers. According to the Green Building Council, commercial building owners and managers will invest an estimated $960 billion globally between now and 2023 on greening their existing built infrastructure. Clients are also prepared to pay more for green buildings, a fact not lost on the people building and marketing them.

This focus is likely to intensify as more evidence becomes available to support the business case for better designed buildings.

One of the most obvious ways for firms to reduce their costs and carbon footprint is to plan their offices better. This might seem obvious but, as a recent report published to coincide with Green Building Week highlighted, there is still plenty of work to be done.

The study from Philips Lighting benchmarked office design around the world against best practice, as measured by The Edge building in Amsterdam which is widely considered the greenest in the world, and concluded that the better use of space, application of smart building systems and the refurbishment of offices could save organisations around $1.5 trillion annually in office rents alone. In Europe alone, the figure was $243 billion.

Not all of the benefits of green building design derive from costs savings however. As our earlier piece suggested, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that people who work in a green building are more engaged, creative and productive. They sleep better and have higher levels of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

The body of evidence to support these claims grows all the time. Since we published that piece the Building Research Establishment has announced the creation of test site that will provide fully quantified evident to link biophilic design with the health, wellbeing and productivity of office staff.  The Biophilic Office project comprises a refurbished 650 sq. m. office building on the BRE campus in Watford, which will be refurbished according to biophilic design principles and the effects measured under strict test conditions.

There is already a great deal of evidence to support the idea that the use of natural design elements is good for us, but the intention here is to create a body of work that makes the point incontrovertible.

One other aspect of green building design that is also coming under the microscope is supply chain management. A growing awareness of the importance of the supply chain is driving a new approach. Buyers are no longer satisfied merely to know that the products they buy meet specific environmental standards and are made from recycled and sustainable materials. They want to know where those materials came from, who made the products, what processes were used, where they were made and how they were transported. The people who work for the organisation and other stakeholders have a similar desire to know that the organisation is aware of its responsibilities in every aspect of its operations.

This is crystallising into a very sophisticated approach and one that elevates the issue of green building design beyond box ticking exercises and adherence to standards and so is one of the defining characteristics of a new era of workplace design that marks the common ground between corporate social responsibility, personal wellbeing and productivity hand in hand with the bottom line and success of the organisation.   

Once again, the BRE is leading the way in this regard. In September it announced a new eight stage action programme called APRES, to support the responsible and ethical sourcing of materials, products and people. Created in partnership with Loughborough University the initiative presents eight pathways to best practice to combat unethical practices in supply chains.

The outcome of all these developments marks a fundamental shift towards a more sophisticated approach to green building design. At its core lies the same idea of reducing our impact on the environment, but that now goes hand in hand with a number of other important issues. And when these touch on the wellbeing and productivity of the people who work for the organisation, the issue reaches a whole new level.